Mary Warnock is critical of the 1981 Act she inspired: it changed attitudes to disability but introduced a system that, instead of focusing on children's needs, became a financial battleground. She tells Karen Gold why
Children deserve a new public inquiry and a complete overhaul of the way schools provide for their special educational needs, according to Baroness Warnock whose investigating committee set the pattern for today's provision when it reported 25 years ago.
Lack of public money, ideological rigidity, bureaucracy and litigation have all strangled the tailor-made service she and her committee once hoped would revolutionise schooling.
When they started work - the committee of 27 first met in September 1974 and submitted its report in May 1978 - only 2 per cent of all pupils received specialist education. In those days, they were labelled as handicapped. Warnock identified another 18 per cent who would need extra help at some stage during their schooldays.
Although she acknowledges that today's special education system is still framed by that much broader view of need, and by the other revolutionary concept she established - shifting the focus from looking at what children could not do to establishing what could enable them to do it - today's overall picture leaves her deeply disillusioned.
"I do think what the committee did was revolutionary. We were trying to open people's eyes to the fact that it wasn't just the obviously disabled who had special needs, but a whole lot of children already in ordinary schools as well.
"I think the report and the 1981 Act did make a huge difference to the visibility of children with disabilities of various kinds, and the fact that they had educational needs.
"It was a change of climate. But I think we were absurdly naive."
The biggest faultline in the system today, Warnock believes, is statementing - a procedure the committee invented to protect and stabilise the education of severely disabled children. In practice: "It has been disastrous. It is the major greatest obstacle to good provision. There are far more children statemented than we ever envisaged. It has ceased to be about what the child needs, and has just become a battle for resources."
That battle, she argues, has undermined another of her committee's fundamentally new ideas: that of the system treating parents as partners in the schooling of their children:
"When we reported, many, many parents didn't know how to manage the system.
They didn't know who they could turn to. That's why we invented this concept of the 'named person': someone who could hold their hand.
"But even that has turned into a means of managing litigation and tribunals. This is what has been so tragic: the amount of time and money wasted on appeals. It's a huge industry, it's wasteful and unproductive."
Warnock, now 79, believes many children today are less well served than they were 25 years ago: "In some ways I think the SEN world is worse than it was then. The most fortunate children now are in special schools which are reasonably well funded, and these children really do have their needs attended to.
"But we were so tremendously hooked on integration and the continuum of needs which children have, that the idea grew up that special schools would only serve the most severely disabled, which is more or less what happens now.
"I think the children with mild learning difficulties who are now in mainstream schools have rather a rough time: they are often bullied, nobody really wants them, and they often don't benefit from the education going on around them. And I think it has been even more disastrous for the children who used to be called maladjusted."
Since 1978, the system has never served children with emotional and behavioural difficulties well, she argues, because of the then Labour government's absolute ban on her committee discussing any link between social deprivation and educational needs.
As a result: "We made SEN into something which was nothing to do with society. Yet it was manifestly clear, even then, that when you are talking about what's wrong with these children, what is wrong with them is not that they are blind or deaf: it is simply that it is impossible for them to fit into school life because they come from homes which cannot allow them to flourish educationally."
Ironically, the Government's only other specific prohibition was that the committee should not discuss dyslexic children - one of the few groups whose situation Mary Warnock believes has improved. The rest, she says, deserve a totally reformed system, getting rid of statementing and any further moves towards inclusion in favour of a much broader perspective on how special needs, social as well as educational, can be served:
"We need to look at how nursery education can give children a chance to catch up in vocabulary and language. This government has done well on that, and I think can be persuaded to do more. We need an exam system which takes account of the fact that people have different needs, rather than one system for everyone.
"And we need schools to be much more tolerant of children who are simply not academic at all. We need a system of small schools from which people can emerge back into the big schools if they can. We have got to have a system that serves everybody. That's the principle we started with and that's the principle which remains."
Nasen show links: Baroness Warnock will be opening the Nasen and TES Special Needs Exhibition at the Business Design Centre, Islington, London on Thursday October 30 at 9.30am.
DfES Special Needs Division: Stand 19 Disability Equality in Education: Stand 63 Disability Rights Commission: Stand 41